Cult Cinema: Watership Down

Michelle reviews the 1978 animated feature, Watership Down.

"Blooooodddd of wabbits!!!"
People have the tendency to romanticize nature and wax poetic about its beauty and grandeur. In reality, nature is equal parts exquisiteness and ugliness—and both are represented in the gorgeous and brutal animated film Watership Down. It seems that animated films used to be gloomier back in the day, and they often explored more mature themes (even though they were still made with children in mind). Modern day cartoons have taken a definite shift towards the more family-friendly route, but have become more generic in the transition for the most part.

Watership Down is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Adams. He is well-known for writing animal-based stories and even had another one of his books, Plague Dogs, animated as well. Adams’ tales always have had tragedy running through them and it’s usually involving cute animals which makes it harder to bear. Watership Down concerns the exploits of a warren of rabbits who may be in danger of losing their home. Fiver, a rabbit who has visions, foresees an apocalyptic event happening in the near future and tries to get the rabbits to leave and go to a safer place. The interactions between the rabbits is complex and nuanced—much more than someone would expect from a film about cartoon bunnies.

The film has two styles: whimsical and realistic. Most of the opening portion of the film uses the more adorable look and then it shifts to a naturalistic look for the remainder of the movie. The rabbits are anthropomorphic in the sense that they speak, but in their actions they are definitely wild animals. They attack each other viciously, leaving bleeding gashes and mangled bodies out in the wilderness to die. It’s actually quite harrowing and gruesome and I remember being unsettled watching it as a child. It is interesting to note, however, that I never thought it was inappropriate and it opened my mind to the idea and reality of death. Perhaps it’s not the place for an animated movie to impart such notions, but it definitely left a strong impact. Nature is nothing but life and death and there is beauty in both of those concepts.

"I don't know. I just want carrots."
This film’s animation is elegant and subdued in that wispy, British sort of way (it’s reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows, another English animal-orientated film that came later). Its color scheme is rich with earthy browns and rich greens and the occasional splash of blood red. All of the rabbits and other animals move convincingly, and if it weren’t for the fact that they are talking, it could almost be mistaken for a nature documentary. Watercolor inspired backgrounds are painted in broad strokes with beautiful sunsets, fluffy clouds and insects buzzing around lazily on the flowers. There is a dark fairytale being told here, with the suffering and joyfulness shown in equal measure. Art Garfunkel provides the surprisingly emotional song Bright Eyes which coincides with a particularly beautiful scene in the film. Sad orchestral music rounds out the rest of the score but Bright Eyes is the most memorable, and became a number one hit on the British music charts.

As this film is quite violent, it did get some balking from parents concerned about it scaring their children. This hasn’t softened with age, in fact, I found the themes in the film to be even more subversive upon watching it as an adult. There are references to fascism, genocide, fear of change, nihilism, caste systems, and ultimately death. It’s very heavy underneath the children’s storybook fa├žade but meaningful as well. Parents may want to watch it with their children so as to be able to discuss it with them, but opening dialogue in such a way is not a bad thing. Ultimately, it is a must-see movie for people who love animation--young and old alike.

-Michelle Kisner